Praying with the Giants: Faith and Famous Scientists

Can different truths be derived from different sources: the book of Scripture and the book of nature?

The Heliocentric model from Nicolaus Copernicus’ ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’.
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The Heliocentric model from Nicolaus Copernicus’ ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’. Earth is not at the centre of everything as people before the astronomer Copernicus (1473–1543) believed, but just one among several planets circling the sun. Source: Wikipedia.

I’ve heard religious sceptics point out on more than one occasion that Nobel prize-winning scientists are usually atheists. In other words, if the brainiest among us no longer need God as an explanation for the world, why should the rest of us carry on believing?

The argument is flawed: regardless of IQ or expertise, most people these days don’t bother with God. Some make rational arguments against him, but the vast majority appear to live as though he didn’t exist, for no scientific reason whatsoever. Today’s expressions of passive or aggressive atheism seem more indebted to secular culture than to science.

Moreover, if scientific genius and atheism run parallel, why did some of the undisputed giants of the guild keep the faith, or at least acknowledge the possibility of a creative mind behind the universe?

It is popular to parade the likes of Copernicus and Darwin as the undertakers of religion who triggered Christendom’s slow, unstoppable demise.

In reality, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), who worked out that the universe didn’t revolve round planet Earth, was a canon in the Church.

Similarly, Galileo (1564–1642) was told to shut up about Copernicus’ ideas, not because of the Bible, but because Galileo was critical of the ancient Greek natural philosopher Aristotle. And in Galileo’s day, the Church held Aristotle in high esteem, including his belief that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. The fact that Galileo’s poor diplomatic skills wound up the Pope didn’t help his case. In the end he was forced to renounce his claims about Earth revolving round the sun, allegedly muttering to himself ‘E pur si muove’ (‘And yet it moves’) as he left the courtroom.  

In the popular imagination, Galileo’s fateful clash with the Inquisition has become synonymous with religion suppressing scientific truth. The fact that the conflict was less about Christianity than the claims of a pre-Christian philosopher, tends to be ignored.

Galileo himself didn’t jettison his Christian beliefs on account of his astronomical discoveries. He simply concluded that different truths could be derived from different sources: the book of Scripture and the book of nature.

Like Galileo and Copernicus, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is another poster boy of secularism. After all, wasn’t it Darwin who tore through the canvas of the human image of God, revealing the grimace of an ape? Well, once again, popular mythology has somewhat obscured the true course of events.

First of all, Darwin himself wasn’t persuaded that his evolutionary theory told the whole story:

I cannot be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force.’ [1]

Just as few people seem to know that Galileo was at odds, not with the Bible but Aristotle, the historic fact is rarely mentioned that some of Darwin’s Christian contemporaries viewed his evolutionary model as exalting divine creativity rather than diminishing it. Darwin’s scientific conclusions neither made him embrace atheism, nor did they trigger universal outrage from religious quarters.

Christianity seems rather adept at accommodating both a range of religious views and the findings of science, some of whose greatest representatives never gave up praying to God or seeking him in the pages of Sacred Scripture. In our secular age, there may be relatively few religious Nobel Prize winning scientists, but when you listen to those among them who have a faith, they rarely do so because of their day jobs. God has met them in places where science cannot go.  

Nicolaus Copernicus – one of the most well-known portraits of the astronomer – at around the age of 40. It is located in the Old City Town Hall Museum in Toruń, Poland.  Wikimedia Commons.

For reflection and discussion:

What led you to faith? Heart? Mind? Or both?

What tends to strengthen your faith? What makes you doubt?

Do you think that religion and science should be kept separate, and that religion belongs exclusively with the humanities (art, literature, music, psychology …)?

Further Reading:

Science and Christ, Pierre de Teilhard de Chardin, Harper Collins 1968

Darwin and God, Nick Spencer, SPCK 2009


We know the truth not only by reason, but by the heart.
Blaise Pascal

[1] Quoted in: Dale C Allison, The Luminous Dusk, Eerdmans 2006, p.10.